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Seen and Heard Recital  Review



Hahn, R. Strauss, Orthel and Wolf: Cora Burggraaf (mezzo-soprano) and Gary Matthewman (piano). Wigmore Hall, London. 8.10.06 (ED)




The pre-concert announcement that “Cora has recently changed from being a soprano to a mezzo-soprano” underlined the ability a voice possesses to change over time.  Unique amongst all instruments, the voice is ever susceptible to fluctuations of form, range, tonal nuance and ability to colour the notes it produces, with performance quality affected by any number of variable physical, emotional and environmental factors. This is what, for me, makes the art of singing something I never tire of exploring and made this recital in particular so interesting to hear.


What, one might ask, is the difference between a soprano and a mezzo-soprano? I would venture there are two answers: the technical and the interpretive. Technicalities limit ones understanding more or less to a question of vocal range, whereas interpretation opens up the issue to include use of text, inference of meaning and expressive feeling. That one might indeed convey different meanings by the individual colouring of specific vocal ranges could be said to be a question of nuance.


This hour long recital had plenty of nuance about it in some respects and rather little in others. What was refreshing from this young Dutch singer was her choice of repertoire, mixing standard song recital fare alongside less often heard material.


Five chansons by Reynaldo Hahn began the programme, and if the prevailing emotion they contained was largely one of hot-headedness there was also no shortage of opportunities afforded Burggraaf to bring out subtleties of text. Tyndaris possessed ethereally floated words – “Viens!” – one really believed that Burggraaf wanted to carry you away in her rapture. Infidélité was all evenness of dynamic until the final couplet – when the infidelity of the singer’s lover was hinted at with two words and painfully fragile look. À Chloris and Le printemps shared the feeling of exuberance in the writing and performance, the former showing off Burggraaf’s ability to establish and maintain a lingering perfumed atmosphere with her singing whilst maintaining purity of tone. Le printemps left one very aware of Burggraaf’s strength at the upper end of her range, still reaching into soprano territory, and it could be produced with biting attack that verged on being too loud at times. More was the pity, as when used with greater subtlety the voice was no less worthy of attention.


Three of Richard Strauss’ Mädchenblumen followed; settings of poems by Felix Dahn that transfer images nubile females to floral forms. Kornblumen, sung at a high pitch, reinforced Burggraaf’s keen ear for the use of text to create lingering vocal perfumes. Mohnblumen was beautifully controlled until the final lines – “she would spring up into a full blaze and go up in flames” – as simultaneously her carefully wrought interpretation did when the vocal dynamic was extended too far, too fast. By now my strong feeling was that she is not a mezzo-soprano in the conventional sense at least: a soprano capable of drama with an occasional lower reach. What does one call such a singer? A soprano-mezzo, perhaps. One might use the term to indicate an ability to cover the majority of both ranges, which Burggraaf does to some extent at least. In this case, however, I’d use it to indicate the area of dominance that still prevails in her voice. That it may be a voice on the move to a lower vocal range in time might be undeniable, but for now, whilst the top still comes with ease and volume it would be madness to overlook the possibilities such vocal conditions afford a singer.


Step forward Léon Orthel with two settings of Rainer Maria Rilke poems to illustrate my point and also to prove the subtly that often goes into the partnership of a song recital. Über am Klavier – Piano practice – is seemingly innocent, showing a young girl’s boredom at the keyboard through careful setting of the poem’s opening broken snatches of text. Frustration gradually mixed with desire for other pastimes, but such wishes were not to be fulfilled. Gary Matthewman’s accompaniment, hitherto well pointed and fluently executed, came into its own by imaginatively illustrating the text’s “cut and dried etude” as a vehicle for creating boredom. The masterstroke came though in blurring the song’s ending with the start of Die Entführung – The abduction. By doing so the two songs became one, a mini psycho-drama. The bored girl falls prey to a malicious, unexpected threat and is carried off in a stormy moonlit night by her assailant. Urgency was evident as the act was underway, - the piano becoming the crowd in pursuit that never stands a chance - before leading to hollowness of tone as hopes of safety subside and cold matter-of-factness indicate the strange unionising culmination shared between girl and abductor, “I-am-with-you-I-am-here”… Such expressive possibilities it held out at all dynamics and across the vocal range, this was vocal theatre that had no need for a stage, and well realised by the partnership too.


Hugo Wolf’s lieder require really strong gifts in terms of word pointing to make performance remotely successful, and if this is done with subtlety the results can leave all the greater impression.  Gary Matthewman gave strongly articulated accounts of the accompaniments to all the songs; whilst Burggraaf gave all too brief glimpses of true mezzo tones in her voice. Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt  occupied an appropriately empty place with her reading, and Matthewman hinted at it too. Kennst du das Land, on the other hand, too strongly emphasised extremes to be really effective. The piano part started tentatively – more so than is ideal – only to be pulled back still further at every repeat of “Kennst du es wohl?” In counteracting things Burggraaf shot too far in the other direction, her final repeated “Dahin! Dahin!” verged on simple declamation rather than conveying intended nervous urgency.


The same characteristics found their way into Richard Strauss’s Allerseelen. Morgen was rather better judged in terms of overall pacing and vocal placement. Cäcilie lacked a touch of vocal glow, but no enthusiasm on the part of either performer. Was I “borne on light to blessed heights”, as Heinrich Hart’s poem says? Not quite. For that to happen perhaps Burggraaf has to settle her voice more, let it establish its own path and then control it with greater assurance in the service of the music she performs. When things go well though, there’s no doubt that Burggraaf and Matthewman form a most interesting partnership.


This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for broadcast on 7 November: the Orthel songs in particular are worth tuning in for.




Evan Dickerson



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)